As someone who has suffered from a playing related injury, I’ve wanted to write a post about this for a while. I want to share my experience and what I’ve learned in the hope that I might be able to help other musicians.
My injury started in about October 2012, just before my auditions for conservatoires. I noticed that my shoulders were aching after my practice, but I just assumed it was because I was doing more practice than normal and didn’t take any notice of it. Big mistake! By the end of the month I couldn’t even play viola for 15 minutes without being in severe pain. My parents and I tried applying deep heat lotion but it had no effect so we went to see a doctor. Her first reaction was to advise me to stop playing which obviously wasn’t going to happen. She therefore gave me some strong painkillers so that I could get through my auditions and told me to stop playing for a month after my last audition.
When I came back to playing viola in January 2013 I found that the problem was still there and was no better. I then went to see a different doctor who referred me to physiotherapy. I was in physiotherapy until the end of May 2013 and, it seemed that my shoulders were getting better and I was excited to be going to Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in September.
In October 2013, the problem happened again during my first orchestra project. I remember going to my individual lesson and having to stop about 20 minutes in as I just couldn’t hold my viola up any longer. My teacher came with me to see the head of department who offered to pull me out of the orchestra project. Although I knew that this would have been the sensible thing to do, I didn’t want to take that option as I didn’t want to appear weak or less of a musician than the others involved in the project. I just about managed to get through the concert and then, after a day or two of rest, my shoulders seemed to be alright again.
Over my first and second years at Trinity Laban, I would have occasional pains in my shoulders. In the last term of my second year I realised that it was mainly when I’d been playing sitting down that I was getting pain. I went to see the Alexander Technique teacher at Trinity Laban who was kind enough to give me some individual lessons. These were very helpful and I’m very grateful to him for giving up his time to help me. However, they weren’t a permanent solution. I therefore resigned myself to the thought that this would be something that I would be dealing with throughout my career.
In July this year I went on a 2 week course led by Ivo van der Werff which was an amazing course. I made some great friends and I learned so much, including how to deal with my shoulder pain. In my individual lessons on the course, we looked at how I can release tension in my whole body and just allow myself to do what I need to do to play the viola. He said to me that he also suffers from shoulder problems and he showed me some exercises that he does to help. It was wonderful to hear that, just because I suffer from shoulder pain doesn’t mean I can’t achieve what I want to do. I no longer felt alone.
The main thing that I’ve learned from this is that, as musicians, we have to be constantly aware of what our body is telling us. If we feel tension, aching or pain anywhere, stop and think about what you’re doing and how this could be causing this. Don’t try and carry on thinking it will correct itself, it won’t! And don’t be afraid to ask for the help that you need. Asking for help and stopping if something is wrong is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. No matter what level of musician you are, your health is far more important than finishing the rehearsal or the extra few minutes of practice time. Nothing is worth pushing yourself to keep playing through pain.